Super-Earth & Lunar Formation | SciByte 134

Super-Earth & Lunar Formation | SciByte 134

Hello everyone and welcome back to SciByte!

We take a look at a theory breaking exoplanet, a theory confirming star, Saturn moon Titan, lunar formation theories, story and spacecraft updates, Curiosity news, and as always take a peek back into history and up in the sky this week.

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Show Notes:

Breaking Planetary Formation Theories Again

  • Astronomers have announced that they have discovered a new type of planet – a rocky world weighing 17 times as much as Earth
  • Past theories believed such a world couldn’t form because anything so hefty would grab hydrogen gas as it grew and become a Jupiter-like gas giant
  • This planet; however. is solid and much bigger than previously discovered “super-Earths,” making it a “mega-Earth.”
  • Kepler-10c
  • It is located about 560 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco
  • It’s orbit lasts 45 days
  • The system also hosts a 3-Earth-mass “lava world,” Kepler-10b, in a remarkably fast, 20-hour orbit
  • Discovery
  • Kepler-10c was originally spotted by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.
  • By measuring the amount of dimming, astronomers can calculate the planet’s physical size or diameter
  • However, Kepler can’t tell whether a planet is rocky or gassy
  • Kepler-10c was known to have a diameter 2.3 times as large as Earth
  • This suggested it fell into a category of planets known as mini-Neptunes, which have thick, gaseous envelopes
  • It’s a Rocky Planet
  • The team used the HARPS-North instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands to measure the mass of Kepler-10c
  • They found that it weighed 17 times as much as Earth – far more than expected, this showed that Kepler-10c must have a dense composition of rocks and other solids.
  • It is so massive that it would have been able to hold onto an atmosphere if it ever had one
  • Planetary Formation Theories
  • Planet formation theories have a difficult time explaining how such a large, rocky world that need elements like silicon and iron, could develop
  • The Kepler-10 system is about 11 billion years old, which means it formed less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang
  • The early universe contained only hydrogen and helium
  • Heavier elements are created and scattered through the universe when a star goes supernova, when help create later generations of stars and planets
  • This process should have taken billions of years; however, Kepler-10c shows that the universe was able to form such huge rocks even during the time when heavy elements were scarce.
  • What This Means
  • This tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought
  • This research implies that astronomers shouldn’t rule out old stars when they search for Earth-like planets
  • If old stars can host rocky Earths too, then we have a better chance of locating potentially habitable worlds in our cosmic neighborhood
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Astronomers find a new type of planet: The ‘mega-Earth’ |


A New Sneaky Star Type

  • A Thorne-Zytkow Object, or TZO are actually two stars in one: a binary pair where a superdense neutron star has been absorbed into its less dense supergiant
  • Thorne-Zytkow Object
  • First theorized in 1975 they are difficult to find in real life because of their similarity to red supergiants, it is only through detailed spectroscopy that the particular chemical signatures can be identified.
  • While normal red supergiants derive their energy from nuclear fusion in their cores, TOs are powered by the unusual activity of the absorbed neutron stars in their cores
  • Discovery
  • The astronomers were examining the spectrum of light emitted from apparent red supergiants, which tells them what elements are present
  • When the spectrum of one star, HV 2112, was analyzed the scientists were quite surprised by some of the unusual features
  • They took a close look at the subtle lines in the spectrum they found that it contained excess rubidium, lithium and molybdenum
  • Past research has shown that normal stellar processes can create each of these elements; however, high abundances of all three of these at the temperatures typical of red supergiants is a unique signature of TŻOs
  • Only by absorbing a much hotter star – such as a neutron star left over from the explosive death of a more massive partner – is the production of such elements presumed to be possible
  • Formation Theory
  • TOs are thought to be formed by the interaction of two massive stars-a red supergiant and a neutron star formed during a supernova explosion-in a close binary system
  • The much more massive red supergiant essentially swallows the neutron star, which spirals into the core of the red supergiant
  • Scientists are careful to point out that HV 2112 displays some chemical characteristics that don’t quite match theoretical models
  • There are some minor inconsistencies between some of the details of what we found and what theory predicts, but the theoretical predictions are quite old, and there have been a lot of improvements in the theory since then
  • What This Might Mean
  • Studying these objects represents a completely new model of how stellar interiors can work
  • In these interiors we also have a new way of producing heavy elements in our universe
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Astronomers discover first Thorne-Zytkow object, a bizarre type of hybrid star | ScienceDaily
  • Astronomers Find Evidence of a Strange Type of Star |


Waves on Saturns Moon?

  • Cameras on NASA’s spacecraft Cassini recently saw what appear to be waves on one of Titan’s largest methane lakes, if confirmed, the discovery would mark the first time waves have been seen outside Earth.
  • What Did They See?
  • The team found patterns in the sunlight reflecting off a northern lake called Punga Mare that they interpret as two-centimeter-high waves
  • It may simply be a mudflat instead of a deep lake, and a shallow film of liquid on top may be the cause of the unique light signature
  • What it Might Mean
  • Waves on Titan would confirm that the lakes actually are deep reservoirs of methane and ethane,
  • If life on Titan exists, the best place to look is in large bodies of liquid, the kind that form waves
  • True liquid bodies would also make a robotic spacecraft mission to explore Titan’s habitability more feasible
  • More Certainty
  • By 2017 scientists should know for certain whether what they are seeing is indeed caused by waves
  • Cassini has been observing the moon during its northern winter, when weak winds are at work
  • As spring starts over the next few years, it brings stronger winds to kick up seas, so the probe should capture more definitive evidence of waves if they exist
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Lake on Saturn’s Largest Moon May Have Waves | Scientific American

Lunar Formation Theory Evidence?

  • Current Lunar Formation Theory
  • According to one lunar formation theory billions of years ago a Mars-sized body (sometimes called “Theia”) smashed into Earth
  • Earth survived and the fragments from the crash gradually coalesced into the Moon that we see today
  • The problem with this was that no evidence had been found of “Theia”
  • Scientists now believe they have found traces of Theia in lunar rocks pulled from the Apollo missions
  • Oxygen Isotopes
  • Before, the “resolution” of microscopes couldn’t find any significant differences isotopes or types of oxygen of any of the Lunar samples of the Moon brought back by the Apollo missions
  • New research appears to show a difference between the Earth and the Moon which implies that a body of different composition caused the changes
  • The new data reveals the moon rocks have 12 parts per million more oxygen-17 than the Earth rocks
  • “The differences are small and difficult to detect, but they are there,” | lead researcher Daniel Herwartz
  • What This Means
  • First, scientists can now be reasonably sure that the giant collision took place
  • Second, it gives us an idea of the geochemistry of Theia
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | Where Did The Moon Come From? – Do We Really Need the Moon? – Preview – BBC Two | BBC
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • The work was published in Science and will also be presented at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in California on June 11.
  • Hulk Smash! Collision That Formed Our Moon Shows Up In Lunar Rocks, Study Says |
  • New isotopic evidence supporting moon formation via Earth collision with planet-sized body |


Asteroid UQ4 Catalina Turns Comet – Still Looking Promising

  • Last Time on SciByte …
  • SciByte 130 | Solar Sibling & Comets | May 13, 2014
  • Asteroid Turns Comet
  • On October 23, 2013, astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey picked up a very faint asteroid with an unusual orbit more like a that of a comet than an asteroid
  • 2013 UQ4 belongs to a class of objects known as damocloids, these are thought to be inactive varieties of comet nuclei
  • By May 7, the asteroid had grown a little fuzz, making the move to comethood, soon afterwards it displayed a substantial coma or atmosphere
  • It is brightening on schedule and should be a binocular object greater than +10th magnitude by the end of June
  • It will reach perihelion on July 6th only four days before its closest approach to the Earth
  • At that point, the comet will have an apparent motion of about 7 degrees a day — that’s the span of a Full Moon once every 1 hour and 42 minutes
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Asteroid-Turned-Comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina Brightens: How to See it This Summer |


ISEE-3 Reboot Project

  • The team is now receiving information from the spacecraft’s magnetometer
  • Last Time on SciByte …
  • SciByte 132 | ISEE-3 Back To Life | May 27, 2014
  • SciByte 133 | Orion Heat Shield & Dragon V2 | June 3, 2014
  • What ISEE-3 Really Looks Like
  • Spacecraft Mass: 479 kg [1,056 lb]
  • Spacecraft Dimensions: 16-sided body 1.7m [5.6ft] diameter, 1.6m [5.2ft] high
  • Spacecraft Power: solar cells
  • Maximum Power: 173.0 W (nominal power)
  • It has 4 large antennas that span 91 meters and it spins ~ once every 3 seconds
  • The spacecraft is spinning at 19.16 rpm, the mission specification is 19.75 +/- 0.2 rpm so the spin rate of spacecraft is slightly below what it should be
  • Image | ISEE-3 Status Report 5 June 2014 (Morning) | Space College
  • Image | ISEE-3 Propulsion System Overview | Space College
  • Using GNU Radio to Talk to ISEE-3
  • The amazing accomplishment of successfully designing a deep-space uplink modulator in a couple of days was accomplished through a lot of team work, strong leadership, and generous support from the community at large
  • The uplink commands to the spacecraft uses products like the Ettus Research USRP, the open source SDR framework GNU Radio have made this exceedingly easy
  • Transmitting Rate Change
  • On Just 9, the team was able to switch ISEE-3’s B transmitter to a data rate of 64 bps, they hope to eventually leave it this way so as to allow dishes smaller than Arecibo to complete the link and have solid two-way communication with ISEE-3.
  • After this they were able to detect signals from the craft with an 8 foot dish
  • Telemetry Data
  • On June 12, telemetry from ISEE-3 indicating that its entire suite of science instruments is powered up and has been powered up since NASA last commanded the spacecraft many years ago
  • The engineers are getting data back from the magnetometer that indicates that science data is coming back; however, just because an instrument is powered up doesn’t mean that it is functioning normally
  • Some of the ISEE-3 instruments had begun to fail or become partially functional as early as 1982
  • Spinning Up
  • The team plans to briefly fire two of the spacecraft’s thrusters on 21 June so as to spin it up from 19.16 rpm to the mission specification of 19.75 +/- 0.2 rpm [the spin-up target is 19.733 rpm]
  • This optimal spin rate is required in order to properly fire the axial thrusters during the much longer trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) we need to perform to adjust the spacecraft’s course
  • Multimedia
  • Image | ISEE-3 Status Report 5 June 2014 (Morning) | Space College
  • Twitter | @ISEE3Reboot
  • YouTube | ISEE-3 Reboot Channel
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Space College: ISEE-3 Reboot Project Archives
  • Contact With 36-Year Old Spacecraft Results in Dancing, Hugs. Now Comes Even Bigger Challenge |


  • The Road Trip Continues
  • Curiosity is currently driving toward Mount Sharp, the layered mountain at the middle of Mars’ Gale Crater.
  • The rover is carrying with it some of the drilled powdered sample material from the Windjana location that can be delivered for additional internal laboratory analysis during pauses in the drive.
  • Mercury Transit
  • The observations were made on June 3, 2014
  • Mercury fills only about one-sixth of one pixel as seen from such great distance, so the darkening does not have a distinct shape, but its position follows Mercury’s expected path based on orbital calculations.
  • This is the first transit of the sun by a planet observed from any planet other than Earth, and also the first imaging of Mercury from Mars
  • The same Mastcam frames show two sunspots approximately the size of Earth. The sunspots move only at the pace of the sun’s rotation, much slower than the movement of Mercury.
  • Mercury and Venus transits are visible more often from Mars than from Earth, the next Mercury transit visible from Earth will be May 9, 2016.
  • Mercury Passes in Front of the Sun, as Seen From Mars – Mars Science Laboratory |
  • Testing Future Landing Technologies
  • Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) |
  • The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) will gather data about landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces
  • As NASA plans increasingly ambitious robotic missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human science expeditions to come, accommodating extended stays for explorers on the Martian surface will require larger and heavier spacecraft
  • This test will use a helium balloon (that, when fully inflated, would fit snugly into Pasadena’s Rose Bowl) to lift the vehicle to 120,000 feet
  • A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket will stabilize the saucer
  • A half second later, a solid-fueled rocket engine will send the test vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere
  • “Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere,” | Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project at JPL
  • Two supersonic decelerator technologies that will be thoroughly tested during two LDSD flight tests next year.
  • The SIAD-R, is essentially an inflatable doughnut that increases the vehicle’s size and, as a result, its drag to quickly slow the vehicle
  • A second system being tested is the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, to be used when the craft first hits the supersonic flow
  • NASA’s flying saucer-shaped test vehicle was not able to be flight tested during the reserved testing launch period unfavorable weather conditions, NASA is continuing to look at options for a future launch window.
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube Curiosity Rover Report JPLnews
  • Image Galleries at JPL and Curiosity Mulimedia
  • Social Media
  • Curiosity Rover @MarsCuriosity
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Mercury Passes in Front of the Sun, as Seen From Mars – Mars Science Laboratory |
  • NASA’s LDSD ‘Flying Saucer’ Test–Update – Mars Science Laboratory |


Looking back

  • June 25, 1997 : 17 years ago : Space Station Mir Accident : The space-station Mir suffered a near-fatal mishap when a Progress ferry being docked via remote control by Russian cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev accidentally rammed into the Spektr science module, putting a hole in the pressure vessel and damaging its solar arrays beyond use. To salvage the station, which consisted of a core, a connecting node, and five science modules, crew members severed electrical and data connections between Spektr and the rest of the station and then sealed off the module. They saved the station but lost about half of their electrical power
  • The One Martian Year Birthday to Curiosity June 24, 2014. The length of time for Mars to complete one orbit around the Sun is its sidereal year, and is about 686.98 Earth solar days.

Looking up this week

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